Monday, January 15, 2018

That Time I Took My Toddler to Europe

I took my toddler to Europe, and it was terrifying. The funny thing is, the most terrifying part was before we even left the U.S. The planning, the packing, the mentally preparing—I managed to work myself into quite a frenzy while we were still on American soil.

But between the eight-hour flight to London (and back), various trains and apartments and countless Uber rides, temper tantrums and idyllic moments, we managed to have one of the most memorable, significant, and fun experiences of our young family's life.

I'm not here to write a how-to guide, but I'd like to share a few lessons we learned along the way. If nothing else, I hope it'll give a few other nervous parents out there the confidence to keep traveling—even if it's a little harder and a lot different than traveling pre-baby.

Lesson 1: Planes + Trains = Good. Cars = Bad
Obviously this will vary based on the kid, but our toughest travel moments involved cars. The flights to and from London were challenging, but not as bad as I'd feared. Between naps, snacking, and a whole lot of distracting, we managed to keep Oliver pretty happy in the air. Trains were also fine, because we could move around and he could climb on the seats when he got antsy. Don't get me wrong: We were exhausted when we arrived at our destinations. It took a constant effort to keep him happy. But we managed to walk away mostly unscathed.

Not so much with our car rides. It turns out that strapping an overtired one-year-old into a car seat to sit in horrific traffic in an overpriced cab is not a good idea for anyone involved. Likewise, when we rented a car in Avignon with visions of happily bopping around Provence, we didn't imagine they'd give us a too-small car seat and our baby would scream endlessly anytime we strapped him in. And when we finally arrived back stateside, Oli wailed for the entire two-hour drive home from D.C.

The only exception here is Uber, which saved our tired butts on more than one occasion in Paris. It helped that car seats aren't required in the city, although that did make riding in a stranger's car a little bit terrifying. Thankfully, Paris traffic kept things moving slow enough to feel pretty safe in the backseat.

Lesson learned: We were happiest when we could get around on two feet, whether exploring the shops and parks of our Paris neighborhood or traipsing around Hampstead Heath outside of London. Bonus: Oli often napped in his stroller or Bjorn. 

Lesson 2: Pack light. And then leave half of that at home.
I really tried not to overpack. I even bought a new bag that I thought could fit all of our stuff for the trip. But then I also bought a travel crib, and a travel high chair, and we each brought a carry-on (including one for the baby), and Todd brought a big bag of gear for a tournament, and then of course there was the stroller. And suddenly, we were a traveling circus.

Oli barely slept in the crib, preferring to sleep in bed with us instead. We never used the high chair, although it did get us stopped at security several times. I didn't use the big stack of pajamas I'd packed for him—he slept in T-shirts and a diaper because it was hot. And I didn't use the rain boots I'd bought just for London, because it never rained. 

Needless to say, having so much stuff made any travel day a complete logistical nightmare. It was also so unnecessary. Besides not using so much of the stuff, we could have gotten by with so much less because I made sure to book apartments with washer-dryers.

Lesson 3: Stick to the cities. 
Again, this is probably a matter of personal preference and has a lot to do with your kid's tolerance of cars/travel. But we fared best in Paris, where our apartment was perfectly situated in Le Marais, surrounded by restaurants, shops, parks, and everything we needed. Our week there was nearly perfect, filled with good food, leisurely strolls, and genuine interactions with friendly Parisians young and old.

Our London apartment was in Hampstead, which is a few miles (and a long Tube ride) from the city center. The village itself was lovely and we enjoyed exploring it, but when we actually went into London, the time it took to walk to the Tube stop, take a train or two to our destination, then walk around the sprawling city totally wiped us out. 

One of the lowest moments of the trip happened when we tried—twice—to go to the Tate Modern. The first time, Oli wouldn't stop screaming, so we took a walk over the Millennium Bridge while he calmed down. We went back in to try again and didn't fare much better. Worn out from an already full day of exploring, we tried to grab a cab back to our apartment and were told it would cost about 50 pounds for the short ride. We opted to take the Tube back in rush hour and it was fairly miserable.

Avignon also didn't work out as well as we'd hoped. We rented an apartment in this amazing villa overlooking the town, which we planned to make our base for exploring Provence. We thought it would be fun to relax for a few days in a quieter setting after the bustle of the city—and it was truly lovely—but getting anywhere turned out to be a real chore due to the aforementioned car challenges. We ended up feeling a bit trapped in our castle.

Lesson 4: Find a good home base. 
I am so glad we rented apartments (through Airbnb) rather than hotel rooms. We actually stayed in a hotel in D.C. the night before our flight, and just the short time we were in the room was miserable. I spent a lot of time finding apartments that had at least one bedroom (no lofts or studios), laundry facilities, a kitchen, and a bathtub. I also looked for spaces that were attractive, conveniently located, and well-reviewed. I loved all of the spots we rented, and they added so much to our trip (even if a couple of them could have been more walkable). 

Lesson 5: Manage your expectations. 
Going into this trip, I didn't expect it to be easy. I didn't expect us to eat at a lot of restaurants, or go to a lot of museums, or have a relaxing time. It would have been disastrous if we'd tried to take Oli to fancy bistros or the Louvre. Instead, we explored parks, moseyed around quiet neighborhoods, and had picnics. Some of our most memorable meals were in our apartment in Paris, pieced together with goodies from nearby markets and eaten standing up with Oli running between our legs. 

Lesson 6: Breastfeeding abroad sucks. 
I thought breastfeeding might make traveling easier—after all, we wouldn't have to worry about what he'd eat, and it's an easy way to get him to sleep. But finding places where I felt comfortable nursing while exploring was rarely easy—and I have nursed in some pretty public places. There were many frustrating moments when Oli was hungry and fussy and my boobs were sore but I just couldn't find a place to do the deed. I ended up nursing on a toilet more than once, which is a dehumanizing experience, even if it is hidden away in a beautiful British museum.

Lesson 7: Babies bounce back. 
Every day, I was so surprised and impressed with how Oli handled what we threw at him. He napped in some crazy places. He stayed happy despite our bonkers schedule. He tried new foods and made new friends everywhere we went. (Watching him kick a soccer ball with some French schoolkids in the Tuileries was one of my absolute favorite moments.) When we were tired and ready to throw in the towel, he was smiling and encouraging us to keep going.

Parenting isn't always easy, and that's true whether you're at home or thousands of miles away. At home, you'll face challenges like how to take a shower or how to get the groceries in the house with a one-year-old on your hip. And when you're abroad, you're just facing those challenges in another setting—maybe in another language.

Ultimately, traveling with Oliver brought us all closer together and gave me a lot more confidence as a mom. Would I do it again? Well, we just booked a Barcelona apartment for six weeks this fall—and we can't see wait to see what it's like to travel with a two-year-old!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The One Weird Thing I Always Bring to an Airbnb

Our Montmartre Airbnb from 2015 ($75/night!)

Most well-run Airbnbs provide the basics for guests—linens, toiletries, coffee/tea, etc. But there's one thing I always make sure to pack, even though it's often included:

A sponge!

Yes, there's probably already a sponge hanging out in your rental's kitchen, but you literally have no idea how old it is, and whether the previous guest used it to scrub the floor or sop up chicken juice. Not to mention kitchen sponges are known to be some of the dirtiest items in people's homes—even dirtier than toilets.

I buy the pop-up sponges from Trader Joe's, so it's easy to toss a few in my bag.

What about you—do you pack anything weird when renting an apartment?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Oliver's Birth Story

When I was pregnant with Oliver, I read so many women's birth stories, searching for clues as to what I could expect in the delivery room. Of course, every woman's story was different, and my own was nothing like I expected.

I didn't plan to share our story on the blog, but as the first six months have zoomed by, my memories are already getting foggy, so I decided to write them down. I doubt this will interest anyone but maybe a few expectant mothers, and to you I just have this to say: Your story won't be anything like mine, but it will be one of the greatest stories of your life—just like mine is.

Oliver's due date came and went at the end of August, and I slogged through each muggy day, feeling desperate for his arrival. My doctor scheduled me for an induction September 6, and up until then I did everything I could to nudge the baby out—long walks, eggplant, herbal teas—you name it. Of course, nothing worked. We woke up at 5 a.m. on Induction Day and drove to the hospital, where I was checked in and shown to my room in the delivery ward.

My nurse came in and introduced herself—she was a soft-spoken redhead named Melissa. She gave me a gown to change into, brought me some juice, and answered my nervous questions as I crawled into bed and she hooked me up to the Pitocin drip, which was supposed to kick-start my contractions. If all went well, she said, I'd be holding my son by dinner time. I prepared myself for the intense contractions Pitocin is said to cause. But nothing happened.

Hours passed. I heard women in labor screaming in other rooms as I traced a small path up and down the hallway, awkwardly dragging the heavy cart with my fluids behind me. My doctor stopped in several times to check on my progress—though my discomfort had increased, I had dilated very little. They kept upping the dosage of Pitocin, and I started to swell up like a balloon animal. Todd and I played cards to pass the time.

When my doctor came in at 5 p.m., she breezily recommended that I prepare myself for a C-section. I cried after she left the room, feeling that the entire day had been in vain. Melissa unhooked me from the fluids for the first time that day and told me to go get something to eat (also for the first time that day). Todd and I slowly walked down to the cafeteria, where I got a sub and some ice cream. When we returned to my room and they checked me, I had dilated just enough for my doctor to feel comfortable continuing with the "natural" birth approach—natural being Pitocin-induced. I got back into bed, and Melissa hooked me up to the fluids again.

As my doctor went home for the evening and Melissa's shift ended, I met my night nurse and doctor. Surely they'd be the ones to help me welcome my son into the world? I prepared myself for action. And sure enough, my contractions quickly intensified, and as the hours passed, I experienced regular waves of full-body pain. At some point after midnight, I told the nurse I was ready for some help with the pain, and she hooked me up to yet another drip. I passed out immediately, and blissfully, yet stayed conscious just enough to hear the beat of Oliver's heart on the heart rate monitor. If it slowed or stopped at any point, I'd wake myself slightly until it got normal again. When the pain meds wore off several hours later, I had dilated quite a bit more, the pain was intense, and I was ready for my epidural.

The anesthesiologist entered the room, and I was instructed to sit on the edge of my bed, leaning over. Todd held my hands as the doctor stuck a giant needle into my spine—I didn't watch, but Todd's eyes told me everything I needed to know. The bottom half of my body went numb, and the nurse helped me lay down on my side—and periodically helped me switch sides. I'd heard that I wouldn't feel any pain after the epidural—just pressure. Unfortunately, that wasn't true for me. I laid in bed bracing myself against the waves of pain, wondering how horrible it would feel without the epidural.

Eventually my night nurse left, and Melissa returned, surprised to see me still there. I was beyond exhausted, but happy to see her sweet face. She told me I was close, then told me how to breathe through the pain, and how to time my contractions so I could tell when it was time to really push. It was then that I learned that pushing a baby out uses the same muscles as pooping, when she told me to push as if I was taking the biggest BM of my life anytime I felt a contraction. My fears of pooping during childbirth intensified. With that, she left the room and told me to call her in when I was ready.

When the pain got dizzying, and the contractions got very close together, I told Todd to get Melissa in there—now. She checked me and confirmed that I was ready to go. She sat on one side of me and instructed Todd to get in position on the other side. Todd and I had both expected him to sit quietly beside me without too much involvement in the action, but that wasn't the case. He was very involved, whether we liked it or not. He and Melissa held my legs up as I pushed hard against their hands through each contraction. I tried not to feel self-conscious, but I was at first, and I didn't push as hard as I should have. Still, it only seemed like a few minutes before my doctor came in and donned her gloves, ready for the final moments. I couldn't believe it when they told me it had been an hour and a half.

It was right around lunchtime, and I wanted to scream as several other nurses entered the room for assistance and started chatting about their lunch as I laid there spread-eagled, pushing as hard as I could. Instead, I worked hard to center myself, to strengthen myself, each push getting me closer to meeting my son after 42 long weeks and however many hours of labor. His head started to appear—I felt its searing pain, but as I watched the shock on Todd's face I couldn't help but feel a little bit amused. The head was the hardest, most painful part—once that was out, it just took one more big push for the rest of his body to slither out like a wet frog.

They immediately placed him onto my chest, and I struggled to focus through the pain, craning my neck down to see him while trying to catch my breath. I reached up and felt his tiny slippery body as he started to cry, and somehow I moved him to my breast and he immediately started to nurse. I felt so grateful that he latched on so naturally. I tried not to fall asleep as I cradled him. We laid like that for over an hour. I was barely aware of the cleanup going on around me, the stitches, or when they took him away for a moment to weigh him and make sure he was alright. I was told that he was in perfect health, and again I felt so relieved.

Before having Oliver, I didn't know if I could do it. I didn't know if I was strong enough for childbirth. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, but I would do it again in a heartbeat—and in fact, I do hope to do it again one day, if I'm lucky enough to bring a sibling into the world for Oli. I have a newfound admiration and understanding of my own mother, and all the other moms out there that I know. Pregnancy and childbirth is the most insane experience—I can't think of a better word. And I don't think you can truly comprehend how insane it is until you've gone through it. As painful as it was, I feel so lucky that I got to experience it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

8 Non-Frumpy One-Piece Swimsuits

OK, so you don't actually have to be a mom to wear a one-piece swimsuit. Obviously. But that's why, for the first time since I was maybe 5, I'm in the market for something a little more modest than my usual bikini. Maybe something to do with my still-soft belly or the grabby baby who's following me around everywhere. Whether you're in a similar situation, or you just like the look, I'm liking these surprisingly cute alternatives to the ol' two-piecer.

(left to right, top to bottom) 1. Tavik Chase 2. Jessica Simpson Under the Sea 3. Nanette Lepore Mayan Mosaic 4. Beach Riot Bali 5. Billabong Tribe Time 6. Splendid Chambray Cottage 7. Laundry by Shelli Segal Medallion 8. Kate Spade Marina Piccola

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Planning Our First Big Trip with Baby

When Todd told me he might have to go to a tournament in England this summer and asked if I wanted to make a family trip out of it, I don't think he expected me to say yes. Oliver will be barely a year old, and the thought of flying overseas with him is intimidating, for sure.

But then I thought about it: It's not gonna be much easier a year later, when he's a toddler. Or a year after that, when we might have added another kiddo to the mix. Or for several years after that. So do we put travel on hold for the next decade, or do we make it work with our new reality?

We won't be walking for miles and miles each day, or spontaneously dropping into a cafe to share a bottle of wine, or lingering over romantic meals in candlelit bistros. We definitely won't be hopping between destinations every other day, trying to cram as much into our trip as we possibly can. But we're going to keep feeding our love for adventure and travel even if it is a little challenging and inconvenient, and I can't wait to bring Oli along for the ride—even if he won't remember a thing.

At this point, we're planning to do London and a bit of England, Edinburgh, and Paris with maybe a few day trips around France if we're feeling ambitious. As usual, I'm going a little overboard with the planning already, and discovering some distinct differences between trip-planning pre-baby and trip-planning now:

  • Travel Time — Our last trip to Europe, we flew to Boston first, then to Paris with a middle-of-the-night layover in Iceland, then to Portugal. Back then, it was worth it to travel as cheaply as possible. Now, I'm more focused on getting there as quickly as possible and minimizing time in the air—which is why I've chosen destinations that are easily accessible via train from London.
  • Apartments — We almost always rent apartments rather than hotels when we travel, which makes even more sense now that we have a baby—we need a kitchen, laundry, and room to spread out more than ever. But it's also a little tougher to find baby-friendly places, especially in these old European cities. That fifth-floor walk-up apartment with a creaky balcony may have seemed charming before, but now, all I see is potential danger for the baby. It's also more important to find a nice apartment that we enjoy hanging out in since we will be staying in more than usual due to naps and early bedtimes. (Better to be realistic about our expectations, right?)
  • Research — Trip-planning is one of my absolute favorite things to do, and there are a few resources I always fall back on during my research—the New York Times' 36 Hours series, Travel + Leisure, Rick Steves, Anthony Bourdain. But now that we have a baby, so many of the recommended restaurants, stops, and itineraries just aren't practical for us. At the same time, I find most "family travel" articles and websites depressing—I don't want to build this trip around playgrounds and restaurants that serve chicken fingers. It's a little tougher to piece together plans that will work for us, and I realize we're going to have to be a lot more flexible.
The trip is still a ways off, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear all your baby travel tips and any recommendations for the places we'll be visiting!

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Essentials: What You Really Need in Baby's First Month

In my previous post, I shared my "new mama must-haves," highlighting some of the products that have helped us get through this first month of little Oliver's life. But the truth is, none of these are truly necessities—if you don't buy a swing or a Wubbanub, for instance, you're going to survive. They're just nice to have.

I've always loved the idea of Finland's government-sponsored maternity packages, which have been distributed to new parents since the 1930s. They include clothing, blankets, toys, and other necessities—baby can even sleep in the box! With that in mind, I thought I'd write a follow-up with the items that have been truly necessary for us—and those that aren't.

Things We Used 
  • Blankets — These are strewn all over our house. These include large muslin swaddles, small felt blankets, and big fuzzy blankets. We throw them down for tummy time, wrap him up when he's fussy, and cover his car seat when he's sleeping. 
  • Burp cloths — For nursing sessions and the occasional spit-up, you'll want these close at hand—which is why we also have these hanging out all over the house. We just bought a 10-pack of plain cloth diapers, which are super absorbent.
  • Pacifiers — I realize some parents choose not to use pacifiers, but they really do soothe him when nothing else will. Also, I like the idea of controlling the situation as opposed to letting baby control things via thumb/finger sucking. (I've seen way too many kids carry on that habit way too long). That said, the cheapies are just as good as the expensive blogger-favorite Natursutten.
  • Breast pump (manual and electric) — I've really appreciated being able to pump and allow Todd to take on feeding duties, especially at night. It gives him a chance to bond with Oli, too. The electric pump gets things done quickly, but the manual is key if you're out and about and need to relieve pressure (as I learned the hard way). 
Things We Didn't Use
  • Cute clothes — When you're changing baby's diaper 10+ times per day, you don't want to be messing with excessive layers, buttons or snaps—or even pants. That's why Oli has basically lived in onesies. I do look forward to putting him in separates soon, though.
  • Cloth diapers — Besides the fact that his Bumgenius diapers are way too big for him (even at 10 pounds), we've decided to wait until he's stopped peeing and pooping so much to start cloth diapering.
  • Dr. Brown's bottle — Now, some parents/babies might love these bottles, but the point is, Oliver didn't, so I'm glad I didn't get one of the packs with multiple bottles that we registered for. Instead, I bought a few different styles to try out and we found one that he really likes.
  • Wipe warmer — He really doesn't seem to care if his wipes are warm.
  • Bottle warmer — Place it in warm water for a few minutes and you're done.

Monday, October 17, 2016

My First-Month Mama Must-Haves

When I was still pregnant, I heard so many horror stories about the first few weeks of motherhood. A broken body in recovery. Sleepless nights. A constant barrage of dirty diapers and painful breastfeeding. And while I've experienced all of these things at one point or another, these first weeks have been some of the sweetest of my life. Oliver is a pretty laid-back babe, but I think it's helped so much that we were prepared with lots of gear to get us through the early days. Here are my 10 new mom MVPs:

New Mama Must-Haves

1. Fisher-Price Cradle 'n' Swing. There are certain times of day when putting Oliver in the swing is the only thing that will calm him down. It allows us to get a bit of work done, too. That said, it's kind of massive, so if you have a smaller house you'll need something more compact.
2. Wubbanub. Newborns are soothed by sucking, and unless you want to use your boobs as a pacifier, you may want to consider giving him an alternative if he gets fussy between feedings. The Wubbanub, a ridiculously named and admittedly overpriced pacifier accessory, helps keep the thing in baby's mouth so you don't constantly have to rush in and replace it when it falls out. It's key for when he's in the swing or car seat (but we don't use it when he's sleeping).
3. Boba wrap. Oliver loves taking walks in the wrap—he usually falls asleep immediately. Also, it's good exercise to walk around with a 10-pound infant strapped to your belly.
4. Bluetooth speaker. Breastfeeding takes up a lot of time, so I set up a little corner with a speaker where I can play music, podcasts etc. It's helped me look forward to "boobie time."
5. Nursing tanks. Whether worn alone or under a shirt, they just make the whole breastfeeding process much more comfortable. I like the ones from H&M.
6. Water bottle. Because breastfeeding makes you ridiculously thirsty.
7. Miracle Blanket. This makes it so easy to swaddle him, which helps him sleep soundly. He starts yawning the moment I start wrapping him, and he's often out by the time I'm done.
8. Not pictured: Sleep Sheep. But any white noise device will do. This is also a really effective way to signal that it's time to sleep.
9. Baby Tracker app. This has been so useful, especially in the early days, for keeping track of feedings and dirty diapers. Without it, I'd be lost because I have no memory for those kinds of things.
10. Cherish the First Six Weeks. I mentioned this book before, but it's been even more helpful now that Oliver's here. It answers so many questions you'll have in the early days and helps you create a non-stressful sleep schedule from day one, which has been crucial for us.

Every parent—and baby—is different, so I'd love to hear: What's on your list?